When something is anomalous it often means a deviation from what we consider to be habitual, natural or conventional. The filmic entirety of director Vishnu Mathur’s 1981 debut feature Pehla Adhyay is uncontroversial in its anomalous status. And when situated in the indexical parameters of the avant-garde strand of filmmaking from the foundational years of Indian Parallel Cinema one can recognise an aesthetic solidarity. Pehla Adhyay was forged in a recurrent stylistic pattern in which tableau, ellipsis, long takes and the open frame are deployed with a recumbent reflexivity that complement the story of Ravi (Dinesh Shakul), a student and researcher at the University of Bombay, who is gradually weighed down by the unbearable alienation of a new city.
What Mathur details with painstaking agony is the sense of displacement, ennui and disconnect that alienation produces. In some respects, Ravi carries with him all the classic tropes that conjure the image of the modern day flâneur – weaving his way through the campus corridors and occupying empty cafes while observing life around him with an indiscriminate like gaze. There is a purity to Mathur’s open symmetrical framing and many of the sequences are staged with an academic like rigour in which the rhythms of urban alienation unfold and take place with a disconcerting ordinariness. Mathur assisted both Mrinal Sen and Mani Kaul (Duvidha, 73). And the guiding hand of Kaul is prevalent and identifiable in the formalist avant-garde approach which in turn is articulated through the cinematographic precision of DOP Navroze Contractor’s scrupulous camerawork and elegant tableau framing. Whoever Ravi seems to meet, be it distant relatives, fellow students or university professors, there is an emotional detachment representative of a much greater residual emptiness that lingers like a festering wound and that ultimately boils over into misplaced irritation.
In a key sequence and as a way of extrapolating Ravi’s urban discombobulation Mathur magnifies the irregular tempos of Bombay city life when Ravi sits in a café drinking tea as he looks on at the peculiar recesses in the traffic on the streets – in an instance the transient city spaces of Bombay are transformed into something ghostlike, deserted and completely silent. The juxtaposition is jarring to the say least and signifies the stark bewilderment Ravi experiences in trying but failing to situate himself within the city as a grounded being. You could argue Ravi belongs in the company of disobediently chaotic figures like Ranjit in Interview (71) or Siddhartha in Pratidwandi (70). However, whereas Ravi and Ranjit are connected to a broader leftist political agitation that was borne out of the late 1960s, Ravi’s alienation seems symptomatic of a neo-modernity in which the emergence of an apolitical identity in the public sphere was gaining traction. Perhaps what Mathur seems to capture so effortlessly is the existential quality of the urban migrant who has failed to make the transition into adulthood, and fortuitously takes up the persona of the flâneur, the Bombay flâneur to be more specific, a riposte to the Tapori, and which projects masculinity in crisis as unremarkably faux.
Mathur’s under-seen debut feature reiterates once again the avant-garde experiments were a significant part of the evolution of Parallel Cinema and which remains in a perpetual cycle of revisionism, reclamation and rediscovery while underlining the urgency to examine film style and aesthetics as central to the way we write and think about the history of alternative cinema in India and beyond.